Captain America: Civil War marks a watershed moment in the vaunted annals of comic book cinema: Finally, a big budget superhero sequel that manages to be both effortlessly entertaining and utterly sobering, instead of just one of those things—or, as we’ve endured too frequently in the past, neither of them. (Looking at you, Batman v Superman.)
You might argue that other films that have come before Marvel’s Captain America threequel have achieved such equilibrium, but let’s be real, you’d be lying to yourself. Not even Disney’s Marvel machine has yet been able to shake off formula or self-seriousness in service of spandexed superhero franchising.
There’s just been too much tiresome worldbuilding and origin storytelling to do anything more than watch heroes wrestle with their great powers and their great responsibilities while saving humankind from the baddies who emerge from the skies, or the laboratories, or the fanatical paramilitary terrorist cells bent on world domination.
But in Civil War, the groundwork has already been laid—or rather, destroyed. A year after Tony Stark and his Avengers saved the world from Ultron but, oops, left the third-world nation of Sokovia in ruins, the collateral cost of superhero peacekeeping is still making the world deservedly nervous. So when the gang tracks old S.H.I.E.L.D. turncoat Crossbones (Frank Grillo) to Lagos and an otherwise routine mission goes horribly awry, leaving dozens dead, the Avengers find themselves directly on the hook for the loss of innocent lives.
The high-profile international incident sparks a philosophical divide within and outside of the team as the leaders of the world call for the Avengers to sign the pointedly named Sokovia Accord and submit themselves to global government oversight. To Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s getting old and has begun to question the price of his superhero lifestyle, it’s a wake-up call the Avengers should answer.
But Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), disagrees. As the super-serumed product of U.S. military might, he’s wary of being used as a pawn by politicians whose shadowy agendas might shift at any moment. Shit happens when you’re trying to save lives, he argues. And besides, it is his movie.
When Cap’s BFF Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is suspected of a devastating terrorist act in the wake of Lagos, he defies Stark to aid and abet his old pal. Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) join him.
Meanwhile, Rhodey aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) stick by Iron Man. They’re joined by Wakandan royal T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who dons his razor-clawed Black Panther suit when tragedy hits close to home, and the civil war within the Avengers is game on.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an outstanding job of ignoring the imperatives of intergalactic interlopers (Thanos is somewhere out there, planning his visit to Earth) in order to focus inward, where a far more complex dialogue is to be had. As the Avengers pick their sides behind Iron Man and Captain America, each with his or her own reason, Civil War underscores the ramifications of personal superhero politics: Are they Earth’s Mightiest Heroes or America’s? Vigilantes or peacekeepers? Should they schedule psych evaluations every time they save the world, maybe before they loosen the spandex and go for celebratory beers and post-battle shawarma?
It’s most unfortunate for Warner Bros. that, at its core, Civil War explores the same existential themes as Batman v Superman—only far better articulated, and with fewer mommy issues (spoiler: No Marthas die on the Avengers’ watch… that we know of). Instead of two lone superman-children trading blows in the rain, Civil War’s ensemble is made up of grown people wrestling with grown-people problems in the light of day, negotiating their conflicting worldviews in the name of living and working together.
Civil War is a movie about infighting families and what happens when maybe no one is absolutely right. In an election year, it’s the blockbuster equivalent to a heated debate over politics and civil liberties waged across the dinner table, writ large. It’s not hard to see why Bernie bros would get behind Captain America. Technically he’s a senior citizen who’s all for government accountability and isn’t afraid of going against the status quo. If Cap is Bernie then Iron Man is Hillary, the team leader with a spotty record on war asking people to get behind his vision of a reasoned new future. If there is a Trump, it’s Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo, a man of murky agenda lurking in the shadows with personal investment in the mayhem.
And Civil War comes close to matching the first Iron Man’s sense of balance between delivering winking superhero shenanigans and comprehending how much more those antics mean, and should mean, in a post-9/11 world. Here, more than we’ve seen in previous MCU installments, every bit of action has not only real-world weight, but also consequences for its characters.
Joe and Anthony Russo, who helmed 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and are also onboard for the two-part Avengers: Infinity War pics, direct some of Marvel’s best action to date—starting with a quickfire sequence in Lagos, where the Avengers tangle with Crossbones and his heavily armed goons in a crowded marketplace. There’s a remarkably visceral kineticism to the fight choreography and camera work reminiscent of ’90s Hong Kong John Woo with a dash of more recent martial art showcases like The Raid.
This might be the first time a superhero movie has captured what superheroes should look like in hand-to-hand combat—not floating on wires or clouds of pixels, but delivering crushing blows and super-powered punches that remind us these are superbeings on Earth and not cartoon characters in a video game. Another standout set piece sees Bucky, now looking like a bionic long-haired European backpacker, fighting his way out of an apartment building with Captain America as the fuzz close in with orders to kill him on sight. It’s one of the more complex, character-driven action sequences in recent memory even before it turns into a four-way hero fight when Falcon and Black Panther join the party.
Civil War excels when it brings the split Avengers together in battle, and when it gives its new characters screen time to shine. As T’Challa, Boseman conveys a deep-rooted sense of justice that translates into leonine muscularity as Black Panther. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, who’s in line for a sequel of his own, charms his way through his cameo in the big ensemble brawl and steals the movie with a hugely crowd-pleasing moment.
But the real discovery of Civil War is also the film’s biggest coup: Spider-Man. Landing the rights to the character that’s become synonymous with Sony’s superhero interests was in itself a huge win for Marvel and Disney, and MCU newcomer Tom Holland manages to wipe every previous version of Spider-Man off the books. Recruited by Tony Stark in a superbly crackling introductory scene, he swings his way into the group dynamic, bringing a welcome breath of levity along with him. Like Boseman’s Black Panther and Rudd’s Ant-Man, Holland’s effervescent Spidey not only makes you understand who he is and how he fits into the Avengersverse—more importantly to Marvel maestro Kevin Feige’s grand scheme, he makes you actually want to see him lead his own stand-alone adventure. (Which is good news for Marvel, because that’s coming next summer.)
It’s a good sign for Marvel’s Phase 3 that Captain America: Civil War manages to strike a perfect tonal balance while exploring more sobering real-world parallels. A feeling of urgency permeates the proceedings, as if the Avengers are reckoning with a moral debate that will determine who they are and how they act in the coming films. It’s time our superhero movies thoughtfully questioned the casualties of war and peace, what happens when emotion and ego overshadow the big picture, and the lasting ripple effect of grief and how we never really get over the loss of loved ones.
Sure, it took Marvel 13 movies to express its most considered moral exploration of superhero figures as fallible agents of global security while at the same time delivering jokes about the bodily emissions of Spider-Man’s web-shooters and deliciously gratuitous moments of lingering Chris Evans biceps porn. And yes, Disney has 10 more tentpoles coming from the MCU in the next three years alone. WB and DC certainly have a great deal of catching up to do after their BvS box office disappointment, but every studio in the superhero game benefits from how well Civil War staves off the spandex fatigue—at least, for now.